Star Wars: The Force Awakens (2015) is everything George Lucas’ Star Wars prequels promised to be, but fell short of. Director J. J. Abrams finds the pulse that somehow evaded creator Lucas himself: the appeal of Star Wars is not found in Luke Skywalker. Rather, it’s heart is the space age swashbuckler, Han Solo. There is probably nothing duller than the zeal of a religious convert. The prequels convinced us of that by honing in on the Luke-ian brand of mysticism. At its best, Star Wars is more soap opera than opera, but someone forgot to tell Lucas that, and he approached his second trilogy with the seriousness of “Parsifal” (Wagner’s very long take on the King Arthur legend). Without a Han Solo-type to offset all that pseudo-religious mumbo jumbo, crash landings were inevitable. There were enough stand out moments in Episodes I-III to retain the loyalty of an audience who hoped in vain that Lucas would improve; although, for some, Revenge of the Sith (2005) was a payoff.
Without Harrison Ford and the always delightful Alec Guinness, the original Star Wars (1977) might have been a one-shot because, despite the epic FX, it takes vibrant, identifiable personalities to ground it. We certainly did not get that from the “Taming of the Shrew” robot couple, C3PO and R2D2 (thankfully, the duo only make an obligatory cameo in The Force Awakens). Nor did we get it from Leia, the princess with a headset styled ‘do (she’s more likable thirty-eight years later). It was left to relative newcomer Ford and veteran Guinness to pilot us to movie magic, which they did (although Guinness forever grumbled about the fame of Star Wars, lamenting that he would be remembered for this role instead of his superior work in the Ealing comedies of the 40s and 50s). Under the assured direction of Irvin Kirshner, The Empire Strikes Back (1980) smartly retained the linear flow and finale of its cliffhanger sources, making it the best of the trilogy (despite the bumper sticker wisdom pontification of Yoda). In Empire, Luke briefly escapes his Arthurian trappings, becoming both vulnerable and more likable. Unfortunately, Richard Marquand directed Return of the Jedi (1983) and he had no feel for the material. Even the actors were affected, delivering stale performances. The result was a choppily paced jalopy, with an unbearably serious Luke and plump Ewoks providing kiddie relief.
With only a few television credits, J. J. Abrams was given his big screen break when actor/producertook a chance by handing the director reins over for Mission Impossible III (2006). That was successful enough to pave the path for Star Trek (2009). Abrams’ reboot was praised in some quarters, but also frequently noted as being more like Star Wars than Star Trek. Super 8 (2011) followed as a valentine homage to the Lucas and Spielberg school of filmmaking. After Disney purchased the Star Wars universe from Lucas, Abrams landed the coveted director position for The Force Awakens. It was a smart move on the part of Disney; Abrams delivers the best entry since 1980.
Some critics have pointed out that Force Awakens is essentially a reboot of the 1977 original. There is some truth in that, but arguably, the copy may have improved on its source, since both Daisy Ridley and John Boyega have more charisma than Hamill’s Luke Skywalker ((Hamill was far more in element when he played an animated villain on the original “Flash” TV series, and voiced the Joker on the animated Batman.)). Star Wars fanboys made a small controversy over the casting of an African American in the role of a Stormtrooper. Complaints about PC casting were also raised when the lead role was given to a female. Of course, it has become politically correct to complain about political correctness. Audiences can keep that in mind, as Ridley’s Rey and Boyega’s Finn send the fanboys running for the kitchen sink to wipe all that egg off their faces.
Luke Skywalker is missing (but hardly missed). The grail knights are no longer searching for the holy chalice, but King Arthur himself. Walking onto the scene with no less authority thanas Ethan Edwards in The Searchers, Rey’s goal is more pragmatic. Rather than searching for a myth, she just wants to get through the day. With her steel-eyed determination, we know she will. The storm troopers, fresh from Triumph of the Will (1935) are razing the planet, looking for a droid who has the key to the missing Luke Skywalker’s whereabouts. Rey acquires two companions: that very same droid everyone is looking for and the repentant Nazi, Finn.
Of course, we always knew that Han and Leia were not going to live happily ever after, and who the hell would want them to? Ford knows it too and, just like thirty-eight years ago, he steals every scene. The only thing missing from this intergalactic Rick Blaine is a cigarette dangling from his lips as he reminds us “I’m the only cause I’m interested in.” Damn right, and none of this saving the universe crap.
Leia, far more appealing here, has all the beauty of a divorced woman. She of the cause, he of making a living, made for some pretty good times, and some not so good. Like Rick and Ilsa, no shame, no blame. It just is. Proving that bad things happen to good people indeed, Han and Leia have produced their very own version of The Bad Seed (1956) in Kylo Ren (Adam Driver, looking like an elongated villain straight out of an El Greco canvas).
Ford has long carried the weight of Lucas’ franchises. He doesn’t have to here. With humor intact, he assures us we’re home on the plain again, and like Ken Maynard passing the torch onto Gene Autry, Ford has Ridley, Boyega, and Driver to pass it onto.
There’s less CGI here, and the movie is lensed to perfection. In addition to composing a beautiful film, The Force Awakens is probably the subtlest entry in the Star Wars saga. In different hands, the big spoiler could have been treated with overwrought pomp and circumstance. Abrams knows better and washes it in a cool hue, like Bing Crosby delivering of the song “Danny Boy.” Holding back actually renders the big scene even more emotional.